The Strange Case of Billy Biswas
Authors: Arun Joshi
Publisher: Orient Paperbacks
Price: Rs 195
It is easy, in the publicity blitz of the so-called new Indo-Anglian writing talent, to lose sight of the far greater talent of writers who do not wear a badge or sell the East to the West in any obvious packaging, but simply create brilliant tales. One such is Arun Joshi, who wrote this story first in 1971.
The Strange Case of Billy Biswas is a little gem, a novel stretching to just 170 pages, and packing within it a fast-paced thriller elevated far above the banal by the protagonist’s extraordinary search for the ultimate meaning of life. Not once does this quest lapse into a heavy-handed preaching session, nor is Billy sketched as a godlike person devoid of human weakness. It is all told in a style that says the writer values the craft of a raconteur. The various settings in the story — student digs in Harlem; misty evenings in the hills; upper crust drawing rooms in Delhi; primal, seductive forests — give the narrative a very attractive texture.
Billy Biswas, a man of tremendous intelligence and very Western upbringing, befriends the narrator Romesh Sahai, also clever and urbane but never quite like Billy, in their student days in America and it is a friendship that lasts literally till death. Romesh’s acceptance of the conventional, hypocritical world around him and his ability to live in it is the sober frame that makes the picture of Billy's constant striving to break free even more fascinating, especially as Romesh is only one who understands what a gilded cage modern society is for Billy. He does manage to cut loose, but society finds him again, leading to terrible happenings.
The only quibble one can raise with this novel is that Joshi has made the two wives — Billy’s and Romesh’s — contribute so actively to the disastrous end that it is hard not to dislike them. They appear selfish and almost stupid, not given the saving grace of any insight. This is a little unfair, since they are both products of the same society that has bred the two men. Even without this touch of chauvinism, Billy Biswas would have been a great creation.